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In Italy, It's Survival of the Fakest

Illegal counterfeits yield $1.5 billion annually in leather goods alone.


ROME — You won't find him anywhere near the fashion runways of Milan, but the stately African known as Barbacar is a force to be reckoned with in Italy's world of alta moda.

Crisscrossing Rome's Piazza Navona with the grace of a model, he tirelessly promotes the illusion of luxury for the masses. A dozen leather handbags with fake Gucci labels dangle from his broad shoulders.

Barbacar wants $90 for a sleek black look-alike of the $310 bag at Gucci's exclusive outlet on Via Condotti. "They're all very beautiful, the same as the originals," he says, before the sight of an approaching police van stops his sales pitch and sends him loping down a side street.

For decades, Italian luxury-goods makers have survived the nuisance of cheap foreign fakes--handbags, wallets, belts, luggage and shoes produced with bogus designer labels in Asian factories. Now an army of illegal immigrants--Barbacar is from Senegal--is helping more sophisticated fashion pirates set up shop in Italy..

Fashion piracy also flourishes in other parts of Europe and in the United States. But no where is it more damaging than in Italy, where high fashion helps define the country's identity and drive its economy.

Italy's tax police calculate the turnover of illegal commerce in leather goods at $1.5 billion a year, not counting the immeasurable income from exports. The fraud ranges from outright counterfeiting by immigrant sweatshops to cheating by the same skilled craftsmen who cut and stitch for the big fashion houses but sell part of their output on the black market.

"The imitations are getting better and selling for higher prices," says Luciano Massardo, Chanel's top executive in Italy. "The consumer often can't tell the difference between real and fake."

Designer houses such as Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Ferragamo and J.P. Tod's are trying to fight back, with limited help from Italian authorities.

Police seize fake luxury goods from street vendors and raid clandestine workshops. Fashion executives hire private investigators and tip off customs officials to thwart unauthorized shipments. Teams of special anti-piracy prosecutors coordinate crackdowns in Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples and other cities.

But Italy's fashion pirates continue to thrive--encouraged by the high profit margins on high-fashion accessories, a growing supply of illegal immigrant labor, weak anti-counterfeiting laws and ready cash investment from organized crime.

Above all, the pirates are driven by unabated consumer demand for cheap fakes. "Our efforts are very fragmentary and, I'm afraid, too late," says Giuseppe Corasaniti, a former anti-piracy prosecutor for Rome. "The market for fakes is growing beyond our control."

Counterfeiting is an Italian tradition rooted in two national traits--a genius for style and the urge to skirt the law for some fast, tax-free lire. Fake Gucci bags are just part of a vast Italian bazaar of unlicensed or counterfeit merchandise--the biggest in Europe--that also trades in everything from watches and perfumes to bootleg copies of software, CDs and books.

According to a survey this week by the Milan Chamber of Commerce, three of every four legitimate producers of designer wear and leather accessories feel victimized by counterfeiting, and four in every five consumers willingly buy those fake products.

Patrizia Costantini, a receptionist at a hairstyling salon in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, says she once bargained a Moroccan vendor down to $25 for a fake Gucci handbag so she could look stylish at a wedding without forking over a month's salary for a real one. If Gucci is unhappy about that, she says, "it should bring down its prices."

Even among Italians who can afford the real thing--in certain circles of Florentine nobility, for example--it has become a decadent fad to sport at least one obvious fake among their accessories.

The fashion giants get no relief from the pirates, even during this week's shows of spring and summer collections in Milan. Nicola Cerrato, the city's anti-piracy prosecutor, says he emerged from a movie theater the other night to find the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele "invaded" by immigrants selling fake Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags while four policemen stood watching.

A few cities try to sweep away the street vendors, but they keep coming back. Forte dei Marmi, an upscale resort town on the Tuscan coast, has had rare success since Roberto Bertola became mayor three years ago and hired five extra policemen to seize counterfeit leather goods.

Rome has cleared vendors this year from the Piazza di Spagna subway entrance and the bridge that crosses the Tiber River to the Castel Sant'Angelo. But instead of quitting, the merchants have gone mobile, hawking only what they can carry on foot and summoning suppliers on cell phones to restock them after each sale.

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